Our current global situation with Covid-19 and our nationwide lockdown has reminded me of the many forms that isolation can take. Bullies, health conditions, geographic locations – among other factors – can cause barriers to pop up between us, socially, physically, and mentally. I remember, for example, when fifteen years ago a friend was diagnosed with celiac disease and had to change to a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free food was scarce then, compared to its ready availability in supermarkets today. I imagine that her diagnosis would’ve been isolating, not only in terms of the food she could eat, but also in terms of what her family and friends could understand about her new reality.
Ironically, cancer too is a very isolating disease. Ironic in the sense that we all know someone who has cancer, has survived a cancer diagnosis, or who has passed away from the disease or complications of it. Ironic, given the number of charities there are supporting patients and their whanau. However, each patient has their own unique experience. This is for a myriad of reasons: their diagnosis, their body, their state of health, their medications, their treatment … the list could go on. No two cancer patients, even if they share the exact same diagnosis, will have the same experience.
In some ways, Aotearoa’s lockdown reminds me of my own cancer experience. I was 22 years young and finishing my studies at Otago University. On campus, I felt I stuck out like a sore thumb. I looked different (despite a wig), had special arrangements for classes if I had chemo that day, had to avoid people (due to the toxicity of the drugs and because my immune system was non-existent), and missed tests. I struggled to relate to my peers and was jealous of their conversations. Compare, for example, “I’m so tired from Sam’s party last night. Did you see Henry? He was totally wasted” with “We’ll book you in for a lung function test, heart echo cardiogram, bone marrow biopsy, CT scan, and we’ll need a PET scan as well, before we start treatment.”
While I had amazing supporters and a fantastic medical team during and after treatment, there was often that niggling sense of being alone. After I had been in remission for a couple of years, I bumped into a former Oncology staff member. She mentioned a relative who’d “contracted cancer”. I was so surprised by the phrase. As if someone would enter into a contract with cancer!
Yet the phrase was to finally give me a way to capture my own experience; her words helped open a door for me, a door which led to me writing this poem:
Start date: Now
Patient X (hereafter Employee) is entering into a medical internship
with Cancer (hereafter Employer) for a period of 182 days. Each week
during this term will consist of a minimum of 3 invasive
questions, 2 blood tests and the ongoing loss of dignity.
This is an unpaid internship, though a government stipend may be available. Otherwise,
the Employee will not receive financial compensation for any activities
carried out as part of this agreement.
Because the Employer offers 6 months of medical training,
the Employee will receive 6 anti-emetic
pills for each of the 12 cycles and 2 GCSF injections.
If the full term of this internship is completed, the Employee may
receive a hospital clearance or discharge.
This is dependent on the Employer’s satisfaction.
The Employee is responsible for fulfilling all tasks assigned
by the Employer, regardless of the Employee’s condition.
All tests and tasks must be performed.
The Employee may encounter some situations that deal with personal data or
sensitive information. It cannot be guaranteed
that all knowledge and material gained will be handled
in a discreet manner.
The Employee understands that the sentence of the internship does not imply
any guarantee of release from this contract with the Employer.
This internship will serve only as relevant experience
and not in a manner that grants any preferential treatment.
Should the Employee fail to execute the tasks and responsibilities
as outlined above, the Employer may respond aggressively
by extending this agreement. If the employee feels the extension is wrongful, no
appeal may be made, and further medicinal training may be compulsory.
The Employer has read and understands the terms and conditions outlined above.
The Employer will sign on behalf of the Employee.
Anna Hoek-Sims is a Dunedin local, after falling for the city’s charms at the end of her studies. She works at the University Book Shop, reads voraciously, cycles, loves exploring, and is enjoying dipping her nib back into the poetry inkwell.